Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop

Great article at the New York Times

If after a few months’ exposure to our David Lynch economy, in which housing markets spontaneously combust, coworkers mysteriously disappear and the stifled moans of dying 401(k) plans can be heard through the floorboards, you have the awful sensation that your body’s stress response has taken on a self-replicating and ultimately self-defeating life of its own, congratulations. You are very perceptive. It has.

As though it weren’t bad enough that chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease and make one a very undesirable dinner companion, now researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence.

Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

Moreover, the rats’ behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.

In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”

Keep reading…

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

2 thoughts on “Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop”

  1. Thanks for posting this interesting article.

    It confirms some of my reality as a tbi survivor. I’ve experienced over the past few years a continual, intense increase in stress. It is a very hard time to make decisions and I find myself repeating mistakes and patterns I’ve seen many times – mostly in retrospect. I see it intellectually, but that is not enough to break some of the patterns around home, work and relationships that have perpetuated the stressors and really brought me down. Especially it is hard to see it so clearly intellectually – then do it again, dig the rut deeper.

    The more I learn about my own brain injury and the prevalance of symtpoms that occurr with frontal lobe injuries such as —

    not learning from mistakes
    losing perspective
    not doing well at organizing around and planning change
    trouble carrying out the plan
    emotional interference

    — the more it helps me inch forward. At least I know more about what to watch for in my own process when change is in order. It just amazes me – and not in a good way – how I sometimes don’t see the rut I’m digging down into until afterward.

    But knowing these things are common to tbi is so helpful and affirming. And I love that the article talks about plasticity and how the rats rebound and build new pathways when the stress is gone. There is alot of literature about plasticity and I would like to know more about it in context of an injured brain.

    Thanks for your blog.


  2. Thanks for stopping by and posting. Neuroplasticity is fascinating to me, as well. I had my first inkling of how liberating just knowing about it could be, about 25 years ago when I was in college, and I was browsing through some psychology magazines at the library. There was an article about rats’ brains developing differently, based on their activities, and it suddenly occurred to me that if rats could change their brains, then so could humans. It just stood to reason. And from that point on, even though I didn’t fully realize the nature of my difficulties, and it would be decades before I put the pieces together, the whole concept of neuroplasticity literally freed me up to live my life.

    Knowing about the strengths of the brain and and the innate ability it has to right itself in mysterious ways — as well as being aware of the tricky ways it gets “stuck” in unproductive patterns — has been key for me, in my recovery. And it continues to be.

    Ultimately, it’s not just about being a TBI survivor (altho’ that’s an important piece of it). It’s about being human. And we can all learn from this.

    Thanks again for stopping by and leaving a note!



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